Meeting in the Aisles

Films of the Decade – Part VII: No.5 – No.1

Posted in Features by le1gh on December 31, 2009

Part I is drinking your milkshake over here.

Part II is frying up a slice of fried gold here.

Part III is talking some jive like you’ve never heard here.

Part IV wants you to accept the mystery here.

Part V asks how can a train be lost? It’s on rails here.

And Part VI wishes it could quit you right here.

What, no Amelie? (too cutesy) No Elephant? (too obtuse) No Team America: World Police (too cowardly – Alec Baldwin a bigger global threat than Donald Rumsfeld?) There Will Be Blood sounds more like a threat than a suggestion for a missing selection. Still, as I mentioned way back at the beginning, the only way to do these lists is to choose the films that most affected you personally, not those that might affect your credentials professionally. And I hope there’s still plenty of films in here that share a special place in many other people’s hearts, and those that they might now discover as a result. Happy viewing. And see you in ten…

5)            BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005)

Dir: Ang Lee  Scr: Diana Ossana & Larry McMurtry

Stars: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams

John Wayne would presumably be spinning in his grave, which is just another good reason to celebrate what, for me, was the decade’s greatest forbidden love story. Ang Lee’s fascination with repressed, self-denying passion achieved its creative peak adapting E. Annie Proulx’s acclaimed short story about two lovelorn gay cowboys (actually sheep-herders). Too fussy and tasteful for those who presumably wanted Heath Ledger to lube up Jake Gyllenhaal with tobacco spit in looming close-up, it’s easy to forget just how subversive Brokeback Mountain’s use of Western imagery is. This isn’t sweet, opera-loving Tom Hanks suffering from AIDS in Philadelphia; these are two virile, taciturn, horse-riding cowboys (OK, sheepherders), the ultimate signifiers of American masculinity, suddenly riding, well, you get the drift.

If Brokeback were only about sexually political point scoring, it would have soon faded from view. It resonates because, though dealing with homosexuality, its tragedy is a more universal, human one: the inability to live openly and express our truest desires. It’s that rarity where all creative elements coalesce and synergise: Gyllenhaal and especially the late Ledger’s clenched, soul-baring performances, Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry’s spare, sensitive screenplay, plaintive Gustavo Santoalla theme ‘The Wings’ and of course, Lee’s expressive imagery – Ledger’s Ennis silhouetted against 4th of July fireworks; and the final shot of a dead lover’s checked shirt literally placed gently back in the closet, the unforgiving Montana wilderness visible through the adjacent grubby trailer window; a tragic reminder of the harsh reality of modern America’s cultural landscape.

Brokeback Mountain Clip: Reunion Kiss

See also:

L.I.E (2001)

Dir: Michael Cuesta  Scr: Cuesta, Gerald Cuesta & Stephen M. Ryder

Stars: Paul Dano, Brian Cox, Billy Kay

The title stands for Long Island Expressway, that snaking suburban conduit, but the other reading is equally apparent, as Paul Dano’s numbed teenager struggles with a recently killed mother, absent father and reconciling his confused sexuality by cruising and breaking and entering. After a botched robbery, he gets embroiled with an avuncular ex-Marine and pederast named Big John (Cox) – and that’s where Michael Cuesta’s provocative story, while never shying away from taboo material, veers into totally unexpected, empathic terrain. Featuring an unsettling, criminally unsung, career-best performance from Cox, this is American indie filmmaking at its most daring and surprising.

L.I.E Trailer:

4)            THE INCREDIBLES (2004)

Dir & Scr: Brad Bird

Voices: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Samuel L. Jackson

This decade’s vogue for onscreen superheroes – given the dearth on offer in real-life – produced some quality entries: Spider-Man 2, X-Men 2, The Dark Knight (first sequels, shorn of all origin exposition, are usually superior). But the ‘superest’ of them all isn’t based on an existing comic-book series; it doesn’t even feature live-action or, voices aside, real people. And yet the billions of pixels that make up Brad Bird’s The Incredibles feel more alive than any superhero movie ever made. Bird is Pixar’s maverick, a volatile talent (The Iron Giant) to push the studio’s established ‘Brain Trust’, for ever-higher standards. Indeed, his two Pixar movies to date, this and Ratatouille, are all about celebrating excellence and not letting politically correct tokenism triumph. In that respect, Bird’s film more than lives up to its name.

Set in a retro-60s, Bond-esque world, it’s the story of a family of ‘supers’, once national heroes and now driven underground by public disapproval, seeking to recapture their youth, identity – and family connection. It’s how these two strands brilliantly play out in tandem (powers that reflect each person’s character – Elastigirl / Mum’s flexibility, shy teenage daughter Violet’s invisibility, etc) that gives the film its dramatic momentum, while the inventive slapstick, adrenalized action and witty humour, notably movie-hijacking fashionista Edna Mole (voiced by Bird himself), send entertainment levels rocketing. Genuinely cinematic (the clever mock-documentary opening), admirably adult and a celebration of all that can make us super humans, if not superhuman. With or without capes, dahling.

The Incredibles Clip: “No Capes!”

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Dir & Scr: Brian DePalma

Stars: Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Antonio Banderas, Peter Coyote

If a superhero alias is often about conjuring escape from one’s mundane daily life then Brian DePalma’s gleefully lurid exploitation thriller is the super-villain wish fulfilment movie by way of Alfred Hitchcock. Starring leggy, mischievous Rebecca Romijn(-nee Stamos) in a rare lead role that proves she should be offered more, what first seems like a DePalma goof-off, a chance for him to practise slinky steadicam moves in glamorous locations (see the opening Cannes Film Festival heist), slowly uncoils itself to reveal a densely-packed mosaic on split identity, thwarted desires and, of course, moviemaking itself. Classily trashy, deceptively sophisticated, playfully profound.

Femme Fatale Trailer:


Dir: Alfonso Cuarón  Scr: Alfonso Cuarón & Carlos Cuarón

Stars: Maribel Verdú, Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna

Two horny pothead teenagers ditch their girlfriends, hit on a lonely, sexy older woman and head out on a road trip to a legendary, possibly fictional, beach. Imagine the mainstream Hollywood version: gross-out gags, surfing slapstick, misogyny and Ashton Kutcher. Now contrast that with everything Alfonso Cuarón’s stunning movie achieves. It’s a sex comedy that’s incredibly raunchy and outrageously funny. It’s a coming-of-age buddy movie that provides all the genre’s bickering pleasures of discovery but totally upends its central duo (screw “bromance” subtext, let’s get it on!). And it’s an incisive portrait of Mexico itself, cannily posited by the Cuarón brothers screenplay as an awkward teenager of a country undergoing its own growing pains, detailed in a series of omniscient, third-person narrated asides on a turbulent, class-riven, death-tinged society, to which the boys are naturally oblivious.

If the last description sounds dry and academic, it sells the film horribly short. I can’t remember a more authentic, tumultuous view of adolescence, throbbing with the dumb, hormone-fuelled bravado of youth (fabulously played by real-life best friends Luna and Bernal). Verdú’s amazing Luisa is no mere teenage fantasy, rather the duo’s necessary, wiser, sadder guide with her own troubled reasons for tagging along. Luminously lit by ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and with a sledgehammer of an ending that, as in all great films, in retrospect seems inevitable, Y Tu Mamás not only the crest of the New Mexican Wave that swept through turn-of-the-century world cinema, it’s simply a vibrant, vital modern classic.

Y Tu Mamá También Trailer:

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4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS (2007)

Dir & Scr: Cristian Mungiu

Stars: Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu, Vlad Ivanov

Cannes 2007’s unsung entry that swept all before it and put Romanian cinema firmly on the map, Cristian Mungiu’s 4…3…2 is one of the tensest ‘non-thrillers’ (i.e. no gunplay, chases or car crashes) ever made. Of course the act of procuring an abortion in the Ceausescu dictatorship was a kind of mission impossible in itself, and Mungiu’s unflinching camera follows two friends’ fraught attempts to do the covert deed. Extended takes inexorably increase the pressure, smartly reflecting last-gasp Iron Curtain paranoia, while Anamaria Marinca’s mesmeric presence is the pure gauge of a thousand flickering shifts in desperation, fear, even hope.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days Trailer:

2)            MULHOLLAND DR. (2001)

Dir & Scr: David Lynch

Stars: Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, Justin Theroux

More than Eraserhead, more than Blue Velvet, this is David Lynch’s enduring work of art; a summation of everything wild at heart and weird on top that ‘Jimmy Stewart from Mars’ has given to film. That it was salvaged from a failed TV pilot is even more remarkable, but then narrative coherence is of little interest to Lynch. As Dennis Hopper quoted Roy Orbison in Blue Velvet, “in dreams I walk with you” and Lynch is our guide through an oneiric phantasmagoria that comes as close as anyone ever has to conjuring up a true cinematic dreamscape. I can’t think of a film – notably the key, spine-chilling ‘Club Silencio’ scene, with Rebekah Del Rio’s Spanish-language version of Orbison’s ‘Crying’ – that’s enveloped my waking life more.

Posing as a film noir mystery, the subject – I believe – is Hollywood’s propensity to chew people, particularly women, up and spit them out, with Naomi Watts’ sunny starlet Betty mixing with Laura Elena Harring’s mysterious amnesiac; meanwhile, tyro film director Justin Theroux is being menaced by cryptic heavies and a malevolent, dumpster-dwelling bogeyman is causing people to drop dead. Studded with Lynch’s absurdist humour, it’s the second half, where the film folds in on itself and the nightmare really begins, that Lynch’s hothouse genius flourishes. The hypnotic, erotic foreboding, held together by Watts’ incandescent, shape-shifting performance, reaches its feverish crescendo – only to slip away, like the most fleeting of reveries. Thankfully, Mulholland Dr. is ours to keep, to decipher, to haunt forever. Sweet dreams.

Mulholland Dr. Trailer:

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Dir & Scr: Joss Whedon

Stars: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk

Hard to imagine two more diametrically-opposed films than sinister Mulholland Dr. and Joss Whedon’s amiable space Western, other than both prove the power of an obdurate auteur who can reshape his vision when TV cancels it. Refashioned from his messed-around Firefly series, Whedon served up the decade’s most enjoyable big screen sci-fi, brilliantly orientating newcomers (I hadn’t seen Firefly yet felt instantly up-to-speed), as well as serving a wry, self-reflexive commentary on his own show’s survival (“can’t stop the signal”) and springing some fatal (for the cast) plot twists. And why isn’t dashing Nathan Fillion yet Hollywood’s new Harrison Ford?

Serenity Trailer:


Dir: Michel Gondry  Scr: Charlie Kaufman

Stars: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst

Forgive the name-dropping but recently I was fortunate enough to visit Japan to interview master animator Hayao Miyazaki. The trip also included a chat with his long-time producer Toshio Suzuki, who recounted a holiday the two had taken to the Isle of Aran. Observing a beautiful moonlit landscape, Suzuki took a photo, much to Miyazaki’s annoyance, who told him angrily: “I’m trying to remember the scene; don’t disturb me!” He then added that a sheepish Miyazaki came back to him months later when trying to recall the scene for a drawing, saying “Didn’t you take a photo? Can I see it? I forgot parts…”

Memory is like that. A subjective guide to our pasts, the point where imagination and objective recall merge or even clash. Albert Camus’ famous epithet, that we are the sum of our choices, could easily be amended to read what we believe we are is the sum of our memories – a convenient get-out clause for those incidents we casually elide, embellish or flat out reassemble in our heads. It’s why I’ve always felt that Alzheimer’s is the cruellest of aging conditions, stealing one’s most intimate, precious treasures piece by piece. And it’s why Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s magnificent Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is, to me, the most dazzling, resonant, heartbreaking and wise film I’ve seen in the past ten years.

Kaufman, with his lineage of mind-bending modernist texts like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation (see this countdown’s No.17), usually takes the lion’s share of praise for the film’s ingenious narrative switches, rare for a ‘mere’ screenwriter. And while the brilliance of his conceit – disgruntled lovers can have memories of their exes surgically removed once the relationship has foundered – is unarguable, Gondry, with his defiantly lo-fi take on Kaufman’s sci-fi high-concept, playful, handmade visual trickery and spontaneous, fleet-footed touch, beautifully dovetails with the surreal material.

The results are not only enthralling (how does Gondry keep shuffling his streets, locations, characters?), they keep his actors – a never-better Carrey, an ebullient, excellent Winslet and crack supporting cast – upfront and central: their faces, their voices, their often desperate, foolhardy actions – you know, the things you remember. And so it’s apt that film, that definitive recording (embalming?) apparatus, is the medium to capture both the memories and their casually terrifying elimination, courtesy of Kaufman’s Lacuna, Inc.

A screwball tragedy for the new millennium, Eternal Sunshine reconfigures that most devalued of modern genres, the romantic comedy, where every new offering tries to come up with increasingly outrageous premises – She’s the wedding planner! He’s her stalker! One of them’s a ghost! – entirely misses the intimacy and investment required to make relationships work; and the honesty to examine why they go wrong. This beautifully bittersweet love letter to love itself understands that not only is it better to have lost in love than never to have loved at all, the recollections of the pain and joy of the whole damn thing are what ultimately sustain, even define us. Truly unforgettable.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Trailer:

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Dir & Scr: Johnathan Caouette

Stars: Johnathan Caouette, Renee Leblanc, Adolph Davis

An auto-biopic some twenty years in the making, Johnathan Caouette’s astounding chronicle Tarnation is an entire repository of filmed memories, from childhood Super 8 to the latest iMac-edited DV footage. Caouette, just 31 on the film’s release, doesn’t merely want to never forget his chequered upbringing and fragile relationship with mentally-ill mother Renee; he wants, no, needs to transform it into some kind of performance art – and by God, does he. Incessantly creative (answering machine messages, stills, Dolly Parton clips), savagely raw, it’s the vanguard and likely peak of noughties’ confessional DIY filmmaking; both Caouette’s evidence and means of survival.

Tarnation Trailer:


Films of the Decade – Part III: No.24 – No.21

Posted in Features by le1gh on December 11, 2009

Part I can be found here:

Part II is here:

24)            IN THIS WORLD (2002)

Dir: Michael Winterbottom  Scr: Tony Grisoni

Stars: Jamal Udin Torabi, Enayatullah

With ten films this decade, from larky Madchester chronicle 24 Hour Party People to chilly dystopian sci-fi Code 46, protean Michael Winterbottom is Britain’s busiest filmmaker. That sounds like a backhanded compliment, a la Spinal Tap being metal’s “loudest band”, but the ceaseless hive of activity Winterbottom generates, criss-crossing genres and global locations, adds to his particular brand of mercurial work, never as impactful as 2002’s In This World.

Scripted documentary? Vérité drama? Winterbottom ducks and dives along the borders of fact and fiction, he and unsung writer Tony Grisoni laying out a framework, but then grabbing two non-professional Afghan refugees, Jamal and Enayat, and basically accompanying them on a hellish attempted flight to London, via tourist meccas Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. Using a skeletal crew and opportunist digital camerawork that matches its material step-by-improvised-step (traumatic rides in cramped pick-up trucks and stifling cargo containers), it’s possibly the tensest road movie ever made. But one that still finds time to rejoice in small wonders: ice cream in Tehran; street football kickabouts, well, anywhere. Winterbottom flips the knee-jerk xenophobic views of immigration to show with sad-eyed wonder, that this world, in all its hostility and beauty, is all we all have.

In This World Clip (Italian subtitles):

See also:

THE CLASS (2008)

Dir: Laurent Cantet  Scr: Cantet, Robin Campillo, François Bégaudeau

Stars: François Bégaudeau, Boubacar Toure, Dalla Doucoure

A pet peeve of mine is the trend for casting non-professionals, assuming they’re more ‘real.’ Want a new face? How about the thousands of unknown trained actors out there? That said, authenticity is rarely so expertly achieved as in Laurent Cantet’s Palme D’Or-winner, about genuine inner city, multi-ethnic schoolkids and the teacher struggling to understand, let alone instruct them. Based on lead Bégaudeau’s own autobiographical tome, Cantet’s fine-tuned intuition showcases the unaffected, vibrant performances of his kids, the constant classroom negotiations of language and discipline, boldly remaining almost exclusively within school walls. Probably the best movie about teaching ever made.

The Class Clip: Apologise

23)            SCHOOL OF ROCK (2003)

Dir: Richard Linklater  Scr: Mike White

Stars: Jack Black, Joan Cusack, Mike White

Star performances don’t necessarily have to come from the greatest actors. Few people would credit Jack Black with a whole lotta range, but plug him in to trademark schlubby, self-obsessed man-child setting, turn the mania all the way up and watch him power an entire movie. Playing an ageing wannabe guitar hero turned fake substitute teacher and making use of his own Tenacious D rawk background, this is his fret-busting, string-shredding magnum opus; his (screenwriter Mike) White album; his stairway to movie star heaven.

What makes School of Rock more than just a Black hit single, in fact one of the best, most uplifting fish-out-of-water / inspirational-teacher / underdog comedies (talk about covering your bases) in years, is ultimately director Richard Linklater. He turns White’s deft, irreverent script into a symphonic ensemble with pinpoint junior casting – not a stage-school brat in sight, these kids are more than alright – instinctively knowing when to allow the film to breathe as a real group effort and when to let Black loose. It all seems so effortless but if mainstream Hollywood comedy were this easy, School would be the rule, not the exception. Then again, not all comedies are backed in Black.

School of Rock Clip: Guitar Lessons

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Dir: Jacques Audiard  Scr: Audiard, Tonino Benacquista

Stars: Romain Duris, Niels Arestrup, Linh Dan Pham

Refreshing to see a foreign-language remake of a Hollywood film given how much America scavenges from abroad, especially one as assured as Audiard’s reinvention of James Toback’s 1978 debut Fingers. Yet for all Audiard’s delicate precision, it’s rising star Romain Duris’ simmering presence that powers the film. Both violent debt collector for his crooked father and passionate piano prodigy, Duris’ bottled-up, finger-tapping restlessness wordlessly conveys the constant internal battle between brutal, cornered reality and soulful artistic escape. His intensity and daring vulnerability wholly matches Harvey Keitel’s go-for-broke performance in the original, announcing Duris as France’s acting find of the decade.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped Trailer:

22)            CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000)

Dir: Ang Lee  Scr: Hui-Ling Wang, Kuo Jung Tsai, James Schamus

Stars: Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi

Ang Lee, of refined dramas Sense and Sensibility and The Wedding Banquet – directing a no-holds-barred martial arts movie? Actually Lee’s fastidious aesthetic suits the unrequited love and repressed emotional strand of this handsome wu xia (“martial chivalry”) epic, as do actors of Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh’s innate nobility. But as anyone ambushed by Crouching Tiger knows, it’s the astounding leaps and bounds of its gravity-defying fight scenes that sweep you off your feet.

While mainstream critics raved, Asian cinephiles griped that earlier masterpieces like The Magic Blade or A Touch of Zen had done it all before, without the patina of arthouse kudos. Perhaps. But Lee respects and understands tradition, taking a 1930s story cycle, insisting on poetic, word-perfect Mandarin from his non-native-speaking cast and co-opting legendary fight choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping (fresh off The Matrix). The resulting kinetic sequences, notably a night time rooftop pursuit and Chow and firecracker Zhang Ziyi’s mesmerising ballet atop swaying bamboo trees, are jaw-droppers in their own right. And as an emissary to bring a ghettoized genre to wider acclaim, ushering in similarly spectacular, coloured-coded martial artistry like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, it’s unparalleled. Next up, Michael Haneke tackles Transformers 3.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Rooftop Pursuit:

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Dir & Scr: Wong Kar-Wai

Stars: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk

The curlicue of backlit cigarette smoke, the contours of lustrous cheongsam, the shimmer of neon-hued, rain-slicked streets, the momentary caress of fingertips… Something about Asian society’s more decorous, formal codes lend themselves to tales of forbidden love that used to be Jane Austen and co’s province. Honeycomb-lit stars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung – brought together by their respective, unseen spouses’ illicit affair – are achingly gorgeous, but lest this all appear a mere Hong Kong fashion spread, Wong’s fragmented, dreamlike structure and facility to tease alienation and emotional echoes from dazzling surfaces makes a mood piece some altogether more resonant.

In the Mood for Love trailer:

21)            THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001)

Dir: Wes Anderson  Scr: Anderson & Owen Wilson

Stars: Gene Hackman, Ben Stiller, Anjelica Huston

“Family isn’t a word… it’s a sentence” runs the snarky tagline for Wes Anderson’s terrific Tenenbaums, inadvertently highlighting the clever-clever hipness that Anderson’s critics think he’s all about, but missing the messy, heartfelt melancholy that underpins it. Whimsical, theatrical (the cast practically get curtain calls) and flaunting influences * – Scorsese slow-mo, Welles’ wide-angles, even Charles Schulz’s Peanuts – like merit badges, Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson, as did their Rushmore protagonist Max Fischer, create a hermetic, bourgeois, storybook world (snappily narrated by Alec Baldwin) in which to strut their precocious stuff. Gritty social realism it ain’t.

Instead Anderson places these self-obsessed dreamers under an ornate magnifying glass, gently raising the dramatic heat until their protective carapaces and quirks melt away, revealing the screwed-up big kids beneath – none bigger than hustler father Royal, the great Gene Hackman’s last great role. Indeed Anderson’s entire crack repertory company – Huston, Bill Murray, the Wilsons – are at their tragic-comic peak; few screen moments choke me up more than Ben Stiller’s plaintive “I’ve had a rough year, Dad,” and Hackman’s gruff, overdue consolation. Family isn’t a sentence for Anderson, it’s a series of cinematic letters, perhaps his life’s work; Tenenbaums is a great American novel. On film.

The Royal Tenenbaums Trailer:

* see the superb video essay series on Anderson’s influences by critic and filmmaker Matt Zoller Seitz here.

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Dir & Scr: Lukas Moodysson

Stars: Gustaf Hammarsten, Lisa Lindgren, Michael Nyqvist

You can choose your friends, but not your family – unless you try and make your friends your family. But what if they’re not really your friends? Lukas Moodysson’s touching, hilarious comedy occupies a 70s left-wing Swedish commune, where free love has emotional costs and kids games involve playing tortured Pinochet prisoners. Moodysson gently torments his motley crew of inactive political activists and jaded romantics with a warmth (and Abba soundtrack) missing from later attempts to shock, despite being usurped as Europe’s reigning cinematic enfant terrible by Von Trier and Gaspar Noe. Maybe like his commune-ists, he just needs a hug.

Together Clip: “Franco is Dead.”